A Week on the Brink

I came to New Orleans last Friday for one of my last visits before summertime commitments keep me away.
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I came to New Orleans last Friday for one of my last visits before summertime commitments keep me away. Lots of follks here are finding reasons to be away during the first half of hurricane season, and of course New Orleans, like NYC and other hot-summer cities, has always had a tradition of those who could afford to escaping to cooler climes. But this year, you could feel the city holding its breath as the calendar flipped into hurricane season, and the papers were full of stories like yesterday's TP report from the Corps that the new pumps they've installed won't be near the maxmimum promised capacity this year.

That didn't stop the city from offering spectacular food and music, as usual. Sunday night, after my favorite duck at NOLA, my wife and I wandered a few blocks over to Donna's, the bare-bones bar that has become home to New Orleans' greatest smorgasboard of live music, ranging from jams to brass bands to the lilting international syncopation of Tom McDermott and Evan Christopher. This past Sunday, as we walked in at 10:15, my wife whispered to me, "Nobody's playing here tonight." Within half an hour, the room was jumping. The scintillating drummer Shannon Powell's regular Sunday night jam was boasting top-drawer players--the sublime Roland Guerin on bass and the remarkable Davell Crawford on keyboards and vocals--and then people started dropping in. Leah Chase, the sublime vocalist (and daughter of the legendary owner of Dooky Chase's restaurant), and John Boutte, who is as smart and soulful as they come, both came to the stage to sing. So did Fantasia, who was in with Debbie Allen, who's directing the Idol winner's life story (!). I'm not an Idol watcher, so I was appropriately knocked out when Miss F. hit the stage and showed off her chops. By midnight, when we left before the second set, it felt like we had been at the center of a, if not the, musical universe.

The proximate cause for this trip was an invitation to attend a conference at Tulane University, co-sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, on preserving the city's (and region's) culture -- architectural, culinary, musical, artistic. It would have been an eye- (and brain-) opener for those commenters who've derided the notion of culture in NO as being limited to beads and gumbo (you know who you are).

Before that conference began, I had last week's edition of Le Show to do, from a new location, the studios of the local npr station on the lakefront campus of the University of New Orleans. UNO is in an area that got serious flooding, though nothing compared to the water that roared into and over the Lower 9th. What caught my eye, driving in and out of the campus, were the two parking lots filled with unoccupied FEMA trailers. Before I could start asking questions about them, I heard on Wednesday that they had been moved away. Where? Why? To Hope, Arkansas, to keep the mobile homes company?

The Conference itself, initiated at least in part by NO native Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute, brought preservationists, conservationists, culturati from around the country to hear from panels on the varieties of NO culture, and what kinds of neighborhood and community structures had nurtured them. Wednesday's keynote speaker was Laura Bush, and I'm duty-bound to report that everybody who sat in the front two-thirds of the auditorium gave her at least two standing ovations. Those of us in the book were, shall we say, more restrained. Her speech was 2/3 laundry list of ways the Feds are helping projects to restore cultural vitality, 1/3 routine State-of-Union weeper about a plucky citizen who's defied advesity. The laundry list was notable for the absence of zeroes. Grants of less than a million predominated. My favorite sentence began with "We know that Katrina has had a monumental impact on the culture of this region..." and ended with "...and so I'm proud to announce today a grant to the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities of $73,000." That's what I heard, though later reports suggest the real figure was -- wait for it -- $83,000. How "monumental" does the impact have to be before you crack the $100K mark?

BTW, in attendance on Wednesday was Congressman William Jefferson. More than one attendee wondered at this, but I had the explanation: he was there to announce his support for a program to restore historic refrigerators.

The highlight of the conference, and the reason that motivated me to attend, was Wednesday's lunch. Brian Williams was speaking, and my intention was to ask him, either privately or publicly, why, given his clear and undeniable commitment to the Katrina story, the role of the Army Corps of Engineers and the fact that this was a man-made disaster in New Orleans had not figured more prominently in his broadcasts. Scroll down in this T-P story for an objective report of that encounter.

As you may already know, Brian's invitation -- issued with great aplomb in the lunch tent -- eventuated in a brief conversation with me on Thursday's Nightly News. But, in a splendid bit of serendipity, that happened to be the day the Army Corps -- here's timing for you -- issued its modified limited mea culpa (no malfeasance found: asked Bob Bea of UC Berkeley, if the work they did didn't do what it was supposed to do, and wasn't built in the way it was supposed to have been, how is that not malfeasance?). So our brief conversation came at the end of a broadcast whose lead story was the news that the flooding of New Orleans was a man-made, not a natural, disaster.

Also on Wednesday, I got to see first-hand two of the neighborhood planning groups that have sprung up and blossomed in the city, in the wake of a city government planning process paralyzed by City Hall squabbling. Both groups, the Broadmoor Improvement Association (actually an historic, but revivified group) and the Neighborhoods Planning Network, have brought in professional help, worked on highly detailed plans for their areas, dealing in a surprisingly focused and specific way with problems ranging from schools and parks to private and community gardens. For folks around the country who may think New Orleanians are sitting back waiting for help to come from City Hall, Baton Rouge or DC (long wait, babe, the Congress still hasn't approved the long-promised $4.2 billion for housing aid; if they do, checks are predicted to start coming more than a year after the city flooded), these groups, and others like Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans and Women of the Storm (no link available), are living proof of the city's ability to generate self-empowered solutions, and to generate community activism on a level rather surprising for this laid-back town.

What was cut out of my response to Brian's last question about whether I trusted the Corps' new levee and floodwall work, after I quoted Reagan who said of the Russians, "Trust but verify", was a tribute to the people like Dr. Robert Bea, Dr. Ray Seed (both of UC Berkeley), Dr. Rogers of the University of Missouri, and Ivor van Heerden of the LSU Hurricane Center -- all of whom continue (we hope) to look over the Corps' shoulder, sometimes (as in Dr. von Heerden's case) at the risk of their jobs. Along with the Coast Guard, the people of the restaurant business, the folks in Common Ground and Habitat and the other volunteers who continue to help down here, these are the true heroes of the disaster.

Oh, and Anderson Cooper was down here this week as well, setting off another storm of rumors. I won't link to them, but your keyword clue is: mancage.

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